July 29, 2005 — The microsystem world can provide some valuable lessons for businesses trying to commercialize nanotechnologies. But despite some similarities, microtechnology should not serve as a template for nanotech commercialization. In the end, every successful business and its strategy are unique, and efforts to merely mimic the victorious and their winning game plans will fail.
Both micro and nanotechnology are mostly disruptive in their character. Many micro and nanotechnology companies struggle to build strategically sound business models, and the majority must cross the valley of death before their efforts reap profits.
On the other hand, the environment of nanotechnology is different and people should not make the error of a one-to-one comparison. To do so would repeat the mistakes made with microtechnology, where the tendency was to look for guidance in the well-known integrated circuit model. Micro is not like the IC world, and nano is again very different. Those differences will shape how the technologies become commercialized.
First, the science that underlies nanotechnology is more profound than microtechnology. Microtechnology revolves around the ability to shape silicon, glass and polymers on the micron-level, with the goal to create new devices and systems for various application areas. Nanotechnology goes deeper: Apart from the top-down shaping of materials to create devices, nanotechnology is for a large part a materials-based game that also adds quantum effects and new bottom-up strategies for production that greatly differ from the microtechnology world.
Nanotechnology has the potential to be in more applications and provide more solutions in a wider market spectrum than microtechnology, partly because it contributes new materials, devices and principles. This requires greater strategy and flexibility in the company’s application development.
Microtechnology is a multidisciplinary game, coupling optical or chemical knowledge into a device design, for instance. Microtechnology needs a new brand of engineers who are able to work in multidisciplinary settings. But again, nanotechnology goes deeper, crossing the borders between the underlying scientific disciplines themselves. Chemistry, physics and biology will never be the same again. Nano requires a new brand of scientists as well as engineers.
Nano’s advancements can have a deeper impact, making it even more difficult to evaluate a certain technology against its competitors. It is crucial that such insight is available to build a successful business case. The company will need to have a strong focus as it commercializes its technology, especially given the large amounts of R&D money going into nanotechnology that will create various competing platforms.
In the micro world, production routes have a tendency to differ with the application; a pressure sensor for a biomedical application probably is not produced in the same process as the pressure sensor for automotive. The requirements, materials, sizes, even principles differ, facing producers and foundries with specific challenges. This is not getting better in the nano world, where the variety is even larger. What would a nanotech foundry look like, for instance?
The concept of a device, very central in microtechnology, is only partly useful in the nanotech world. A number of solutions are material-like. At the same time, the technology enables a new intermediate form, such as intricate target drug delivery solutions or smart dust. This is a challenge for the designer and producer, but probably even more so for the user, the public and the regulatory bodies.
Microtechnology always had moderate interest from government, the financial world and industry and as a result, has seen relatively controlled development. The interest in nanotechnology from governments and financiers is much greater, sometimes bubble-like. The expectations are deservedly high, but there’s a risk, as all of us know. The biggest challenge in commercialization might be managing these expectations.